The diplomat had been ordered to Indonesia by her government. To the capital, Jakarta, for a three day diplomatic meet-and-greet event concerning an ASEAN Human Rights role. Ideal, I thought. This is because my father lives in Bandung, Indonesia, a large town some 150km south east of Jakarta, nestled in the mountains, very close to several volcanoes- some extinct, some not. Given I’ve lived half a planet away for the past decade and a half it seemed a good opportunity to go see where the old man resided and take along his ‘middle-of-three’ granddaughter. What could possibly go wrong with that?
So, with some alacrity the diplomat, Isla and I vaulted out of bed at 5am, cavorted into an Embassy car, and whispered our way in leathery comfort all the way to the airport where we zipped past waiting queues, grabbed a couple of drinks and were ushered onto the waiting Thai Airways plane ahead of everyone. It is a fact of life that if you are a diplomat and have a baby then you’re getting in front of everyone and that’s even if they’ve paid for First Class Service. We settled into our bulkhead seats, the person next to us got moved so we had three seats for extra space, the plane rolled smoothly into the cerulean skies, Isla dutifully fell asleep for two of the three hours, gurgled happily and amusedly after she woke, and then we landed.
A voyage that was smooth as silk, as Thai Airlines would accurately have you believe.
<it is at this point, dear reader, I recommend that the rest of this post is read with the accompanying music to get a true flavour of what it means to travel in Indonesia.>
With hindsight, the long delay to get our priority car seat off the baggage carousel should have fired a warning shot across our happy bow. It took a good 30 minutes to have it come through. We lugged it out into the humidity of a southern hemisphere spring where we were told it was the start of the rainy season.
Not that it was raining. At least, not yet. We greeted my father who had driven all the way from Bandung to collect us, noted the “It’s about a 2-3hr ride if we’re incredibly lucky” observation (Google Map it – it’ll also tell you it’s 2hrs.), strapped Isla in her brand new car seat, and headed out of the airport. Everything looked good. Nice wide roads, manicured foliage on both sides, moving traffic at a usual freeway pace. Ahead of us was the city that we had to drive through in order to speed on towards the mountains. Having made it through the centre with its glassy skyscrapers, odd eye-catching monument, advertising mega-boards, and the odd engineer dangling precariously twenty stories up with a blow torch we came to a stop at the toll booth.
From here it was a journey across the wilderness, of a traffic jam hell, of torrential rain, incredible driving of the racer kind, and a complete homage to Chris Rea. For six days. I estimate that in that time we spent 39hrs in traffic. Admittedly, some of it was picturesque, all of it was a cultural panorama, but it came at the price of a bumper to bumper crawling, grinding, flasher indicating, “let’s make 3 lanes into 7” traffic nightmare that has its place in Dante’s Inferno. The use of indicators was a great example. People leave them on, indicate left and then turn right, let their hazard warning lights stay on… all the time. It’s actually quicker in Jakarta to walk ten kilometres. You’d reasonably expect to go see three, maybe four cultural places in a single day, even with a pushchair. But no. Plan for one. That’s all you’ll see. The problem is the lack of infrastructure other than roads. No BTS here, no underground, no traffic lights or roundabouts to help congestion.
It was during this that we truly appreciated that our globe-trotting 1yr old travels perfectly. That first trip took us over five hours and she sat in her baby seat the entire time, saving a stop at a Burger King, without grimace, without glare, without any hint of irritation, exasperation, despair. In fact she was a paragon of traffic jam virtue for her parents who failed miserably at any attempt at matching her stoicism. Even my father recounted the warning of his Indonesian wife who said “You are driving to Jakarta and back? Are you insane?” Take it from me, if anyone tells you Jakarta-Bandung is a 3hr drive then he or she is clearly talking about driving at 2am on a day when the country has run out of gas. It’s 5 hrs. Period. In fact we heard from another diplomat who happened to do the same journey that day. Took her over six hours!
This is one aspect of Indonesia. A place where you either spend half a day on the road or half a day staying wherever you are, nodding sagely at those complaining about it.
The next day my father took us up to the volcano at (that’s another blog) Tangkuban Perahu. Much like the trip to Chiang Mai we climbed higher and higher. This time it was even steeper, single lane 1:1 inclines, village tolls, broken roads and switchbacks that I’ll swear had razor creased bends. It was a joy to get out at the summit and be able to perambulate the rim at a speed of more than 2mph.
Am I whinging tourist? Yeah. But these are hard facts I’m relating.
The trip back through the centre of Bandung involved a crawl through the market streets where you can get everything you want for negligible price. We watched in amazement as a BusyBee bus barrelled its way down the road. That means it was able to do 10mph to the rest of us doing 3mph. It’s a clear case of size very much does matter here. The larger you are the more you can dominate other vehicles. Like Bangkok you move with a swarm of mopeds around you. Babies are jammed between adults sans helmets, kids as young as 10yrs zip up the inside of you. All the time you wait in traffic people knock on your window, selling, begging, asking for something, anything.
Now…you can tolerate all this until the precise moment your air conditioning fails. Whilst the diplomat took a luxurious train ride back to Jakarta a little later in the week through stunning scenery – and Indonesia is stunning visually – Isla and I ran the gamut of the car trip back. Surely this time it would be easier? At first, it was. We had time to appreciate the view. For example, all of the desa (villages) that are camouflaged by the broad leaves of the jungle have the same rust coloured tiled roofs. It is an incredibly picturesque mix of ochre and verdant green. All around them step the agrarian terraces in perfect symmetry. I am told it is the only place in the world where three harvests a year are possible. The only thing my father and his wife can’t grow is runner beans, to their despair. And, of course, the place is a major grower and exporter of tea.
It had…for about 90minutes until we got within 37km of Jakarta. I awoke from a doze. Was it getting hot in the car?
“Er, Dad. Why is Isla sweating? It’s a touch hot here.”
“Hmm. The car temperature has risen. The needle’s nearly touching ‘H’”.
‘H’ isn’t good, trust me.
“Wind down the window and we’ll see what happens…” Click. The AC goes off as well. It’s 34C outside with 85RH. Whilst we have a bit of speed that’s fine. Then we hit the toll booths. Stop. Sit there. And sit there. It’s a toll where 10 lanes compress to 3. Trouble was, an accident took out a lane. I kid you not – it was 45minutes to move 100m. With no AC. I am anxiously watching Isla for signs of dehydration giving her water as often as possible. We eventually edge past the jam and do a steady 10kmh towards our hotel. We have a GPS to get us to the hotel but the problem with a GPS is it doesn’t really tell you about major road works. Were there major road works? Of course there were! A GPS will recalculate but doesn’t understand that any tiny diversion in Jakarta is an hour. This was coupled with the fact a taxi driver decided to send us the wrong way. As we moved away from the city centre with its skyscrapers an uneasy feeling settled over us. Surely this was not right.
Nope. As we found out when a moped man told us so. He very kindly (for 50,000Rupiah/about $5) offered to lead us the 7km back to our hotel. Another 30minutes driving to the Mulia Hotel Jakarta. I’ve never been so glad to get a 1yr old into five star luxury. Isla, my father and I lurched out of the steaming car and into the cool, marbled, pleasant, luxurious foyer like parched desert crossers finding an oasis.
Suffice it to say, the next day, attempting to go see cultural places proved nigh on impossible. We managed one (which was the fabulous Museum Nasional) but had to cancel a second as we realised we had no chance of getting to the end of the road by 4pm, let alone to the National Archives Museum).
So…that’s the reality of driving around Jakarta and to Bandung. Indonesia is a fantastic country – more blog posts from me will tell you that – but the problem is getting to its wonderful sights.
Yet….if you love traffic jams, this is the place for you. For ever.
Is this what diplomacy is all about? I hope not.